Of Instagram and technology adoption

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Ashu Mittal, a photographer and self confessed Instagram addict, wrote a lovely post: ‘Don’t hate Instagram but embrace it‘. The article is a response to a school of thought which believes that photo sharing apps, specifically Instagram debases ‘real’ photography.  The argument is that it makes people believe mistakenly that they are great photographers while the truth is that becoming a real photographer cannot be just about pressing a button and adding a few pre-programmed filters. An article from Atlantic argues:

The very basis of Instagram is not just to show off, but to feign talent we don’t have, starting with the filters themselves. The reason we associate the look with “cool” in the first place is that many of these pretty hazes originated from processes coveted either for their artistic or unique merits, as photographer and blogger Ming Thein explains: “Originally, these styles were either conscious artistic decisions, or the consequences of not enough money and using expired film. They were chosen precisely because they looked unique—either because it was a difficult thing to execute well (using tilt-shift lenses, for instance) or because nobody else did it (cross-processing),” he writes. Instagram, however, has made such techniques easy and available, taking away that original value. “It takes the skill out of actually having to do any of these things (learn to process B&W properly, either chemically or in Photoshop, for instance),” he continues.

As a counter, Ashu puts forth the point that Instagram has made photography accessible.

I think all Instagram has done is made photography accessible. And saying that Instagram promotes shallow photography is like saying cheap utensils promote unhealthy eating. It is what you do with the equipment or platform is what matters. You could click photos with Instragram that end up in Sports Illustrated or you could click photos that end up, well, here (the rich kids of Instagram).

I tend to agree with Ashu. In fact, arguments against new developments in technology have always been about how it will destroy the traditional, known form which it seeks to either replace or improve. The related argument is that such innovations are inferior to whatever they seek to improve upon and that those who adopt these innovations are ‘shallow’. But that’s not always the case. Email was supposed to make printing obsolete. Movie-going is still thriving despite bit torrents and DVDs. One could argue that there have been technologies that went obsolete due to inventions and innovations: typewriter, camera film and audio tapes come to mind. But photo sharing apps like Instagram are not in that league – they are not meant to replace photography as we know it. They just capitalise on human behaviour: we carry our smartphones everywhere and thanks to improved cameras and sharing options in them (3G and Wifi playing role), we tend to click away at anything – be it food in front of us or a sunset. Smartphones have painting apps too. But those haven’t taken away the fact that painting requires intrinsic talent & skill. My guess is that most sketching and painting apps are used by common folk to simply doodle. The traditional painters and artists have adapted to the new medium. Jorge Colombo, an artist, painted the cover of New Yorker magazine using an iPhone app, Brushes. One could argue that photography as defined by smartphones and most digital cameras is simply point and shoot, whereas painting is a tad more difficult and not everyone’s good at that. Painting apps don’t profess to make a painter out of everyone but both (photography & painting apps) essentially offer the same benefit.

Painting created by Goro Fujita on his phone.

Regarding the argument about such apps being shallow and inferior to the real thing, it usually comes from purists who believe that their way is the right way. And often the only way. There are many who cock a snook at e-books. They believe that there can’t be any other form of reading other than the printed version of paperbacks & hard bounds . They hold on to the  ‘joy of curling up with a book’ and other such romantic associations of traditional book reading. Which is fine, but that doesn’t mean they have to look down upon the new way of reading. Despite such misgivings, Kindles and iPads are being used for reading books. Ditto with SMS lingo – purists baulked at OMG, BRB, GR8 and such like. They called it the death of English language. But IMHO, such forces cannot be reversed and we need to accept their existence and live with it. Having said that, poor language skills (be it spoken or written) and disregard for grammar & sentence construction worries among me too. ‘Da thing’ is both can coexist. Despite SMS lingo and poor spelling creeping into our lives, there is still some great writing being produced. Apps like Instagram may make anyone who can point & press a button, feel like a photographer. But there’s no point deriding them. And oh, Instagram is home to some great photographs. It’s just the way it is with some technology – the old and the new will coexist.

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